11 Oct 2008


JapanesePod101 is a web site for learning Japanese. I have previously used ChinesePod.com for learning Chinese, and found it the most effective way to learn a language, so I was already familiar with, and enthusiastic about the format. However my Chinese level is beginner while my Japanese level is more advanced. My review is based on the 7-day free trial, and is from the point of view of someone with already strong Japanese skills.

Lessons are organized by levels, from Newbie to Upper Intermediate. These are shown as buttons along the top of the Lessons page. But the links on the right include some extras, so better to use them. Lessons are also organized by series, within the same level. So there is Lower Intermediate Series 1, 2 and 3. This distinction is confusing and unneccessary.

Each lesson has an audio lesson, generally about 7-12 minutes long, which has a dialogue by Japanese voice actors, and introduced by at least one native Japanese speaker and one native English speaker. Then there is a lesson notes PDF, which I found to be well-done, especially with the grammar discussions. In fact, unlike ChinesePod, there is probably good value in going for the Basic ($8/month) subscription. There is also a kanji PDF, but that was less useful: it is designed for tracing, but doesn't indicate stroke order. Better to buy a kanji learner's dictionary and use a piece of scrap paper.

Each lesson also a video showing the movie. I thought this was useful. My only criticism here is that it could be done as a flash movie, which would reduce the 10Mb file down to about 200Kb.

A few odds and ends. They have JLPT tests, but only for levels 3 and 4 (the easier two levels). There is a lesson called audio blog, which is all Japanese. The blog itself is only a few minutes long and is then followed with discussion (also in Japanese). They have special offers, both during the trial (wait for day 5 at least before signing up!), and every month or two after that.

The 7-day trial allows a maximum download of 10 PDFs (with lesson pdf and kanji pdf counting as one each), which caught me by surprise and effectively cut short my evaluation. I didn't notice any other restrictions however.

Summary: even for the more advanced student I think the lessons are useful, and I intend to sign up for a month's hard study in the Autumn. If and when they add tests for JLPT level 1 and 2, it will be even more useful.

P.S. I see ChinesePod.com are in the process of setting up JapanesePod.com. Given the headstart it has, I expect JapanesePod101.com to be superior for at least the next year.

7 Aug 2008

Breadmaker, Wholewheat flour

I live in Japan and they have a different approach to bread. They like it so white it has slightly less nutrition than a piece of damp cardboard, they like it so soft and bouncy it is impossible to spread margarine on, and they like their slices so thick that each is really a mini-loaf. Oh, and they don't like the crusts: they are cut off and thrown away at the bread shop.

It seemed that whenever I found a nearby supermarket stocking (relatively) healthy bread they would discontinue that line within two weeks. The local co-op had a multi-grain bread that had 10 slices to the packet, and so could be used for sandwiches. That lasted a number of months, though was frequently sold out, but then, while they kept that bread type, they switched to 6 slices to a packet. This was never sold out, but was much less useful.

Obviously the supermarkets are run by morons.

A minor rant but it explains why I finally decided enough is enough and got a breadmaker. I wanted one that can handle wholemeal flour; my wife wanted one that can use tennen-koubo (natural yeast?). These two conditions eliminate some models, but it turns out you still have plenty of choice. We went for a 1.5 loaf model in the end, as it was only slightly more expensive and some reviews mentioned the 1.5 loaf model was quiet, while some reviews mentioned the 1 loaf model was noisy.

The one we went for was the National SD-BM151. But as far as models go, this is my first and only breadmaker, so I cannot compare them.

We have had this almost six months now and it has been wonderful. We have simply stopped buying bread! I've been baking about two of the 1.5 loaves each week, freezing some of the bread each time. It takes about 10 minutes effort to grab the ingredients from the cupboard, measure them and put them in the bread maker, and start it. Let's call it 15 minutes if we include the time spent on the washing up afterwards, and the slicing.

Some downsides.
  • There is a little indentation in the bottom, which depending on where the rotor finally ends up can affect from 1 to 4 slices.
  • You have to slice the bread yourself. It can be quite soft and so it is tricky to get all the slices beautiful. So we often end up with at least one slice that is wedge-shaped.

Some upsides
  • No preservatives or chemicals.
  • I am typically using 50% organic wholewheat flour, 25% organic white flour and 25% cheap white (bread) flour. So almost organic (I'm not using 100% organic simply as it costs more). I also use whole milk, and brown sugar. This makes a loaf that is not just tasty but also so much healthier than anything we can possibly buy.
  • A gorgeous smell for the last hour of the baking.
  • Something satisfying about baking your own bread.
  • Our most common recipe is to add raisons and walnuts. A delicious and healthy combination (the raisons also give a bit of moisture for people who find 50% wholewheat too heavy). And, again, you simply cannot buy this in the shops.
  • It makes pizza dough! Pizza with 30% or so wholewheat flour is a real delight; white-bread pizza just seems so bland now.

Where to get wholewheat flour in Japan? First there is FBC: http://www.fbcusa.com/
They are resellers for Alishan, but if you are buying over 10,000 yen's worth anyway then delivery is free. Or you can go direct to Alishan here: http://www.alishan-organic-center.com/en/index.html
Here is a direct link to their flours.
They have a great-value 5kg wholewheat flour there, but be careful: it is not organic (I didn't realize until it arrived, so I am working through that at the moment, and will then go back to ordering the organic 2kg bags).